Game Plan

I’ve been writing for well over twenty years now.  I’ve been a professional novelologist for a little over eight years now.

I still have no clue what people want.

Not one.

I have an inkling.  I know that, generally, people like things they already know they like.  Once someone discovers something they enjoy, they’re likely to stick with it for a long, long time.  We get annoyed at Hollywood for producing sequel after sequel, but we go see them.  We get bored with ongoing book series, but we stick with them.  We become wholly dedicated to our favorite TV shows, books, movies, bands, and so on.

Until we stop being dedicated and move onto something else.

I know (or at least, I’m pretty sure) that the key to gaining a loyal audience, more than anything else, is timing.  Star Wars came along at the right time and a media empire was born.  Like a first love, it holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts, and it continues to thrive.  It’s not only because of that original audience either.  It’s because Star Wars spreads like a cultural virus, from old host to fresh hosts.  It continues to remain relevant because, somehow, it continues to become the first love of new generations.

Harry Potter became a phenomenon because a young generation was ready for something, and, if it wasn’t Harry Potter, it would’ve been something else.  That’s not meant as a slight to Harry Potter‘s popularity.  Any more than it’s a slight to my lovely wife to acknowledge that timing was critical to our relationship.  I love my wife, but if our timing had been off, we could easily have gone different ways, and we would never have known what we were missing.

But is timing all that matters?  Is life all about being in the right place at the right time?

It’s not that I doubt the importance of other elements.  The original Star Wars is a groundbreaking film and worthy of every bit of praise it receives.  The Harry Potter series (while not my cup of tea) is solid, entertaining, and has plenty worthwhile about it.  But timing is why they’re noticed.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a bit of a career slump of late, and I feel like I should be doing better than I am at this point.  Of course, it’s just as likely that I was on an early, unexpected career high, and this isn’t a slump, but the way it should be.  It’s weird to complain about being dissatisfied getting paid to write stories for a living when so many people would love to do it for free, but it’s human.  I want to be more popular than I am.  I want to sell more books.

And I’m just not sure how to do that.

A lot of that, much as I hate saying it, is out of my hands.  I don’t control the timing of the universe, and I can’t tell the future.  As humans, we tend to view hindsight as foresight.  Sure, Star Wars and Harry Potter are now multi-million dollar cultural moneymaking machines, but at the time, nobody really knew that.  And there are plenty of predicted NEXT BIG THINGS that fizzled away and faded into obscurity.

I’m fortunate enough that I’ve seen other writers go through this, so it isn’t quite surprising.  I’ve known more than one writer who, while chugging along with their career, hit that career bump where things just seemed overwhelming and frustrating.  That’s not much different than any career, where it’s all too easy to feel like you should be further along than you are and you end up wondering if this is all there is to it?

I’ve never expected to be a household name or to be a giant of science fiction and fantasy, but I know I don’t want to be stuck where I am either.  I’ve come to realize recently that my ambitions are larger than that.  I don’t think I’ll ever be spoken of in hushed tones among the greats of literature.  I doubt my books will even be remembered a few decades from now.  But still, I want to climb higher.

I used to think writing good stories (and a lot of luck) might be enough, but it isn’t.  There has to be a game plan at some point.  I don’t have one of those yet.

STEP ONE: WRITE

STEP TWO: ?????

STEP THREE: PROFIT

You could call it a work in progress, Action Force.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

 

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22 Comments

  1. Posted February 13, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    You’re doing better than a lot of us, so there’s that.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted February 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      It’s true. Part of the reason I hesitate to share these thoughts is because it can come across as “poor me”. I want it noted for the record that that’s not my intention. I’m lucky to have gotten as far as I have, and I don’t ever doubt that.

      I’d like to be more successful than I am, but I also realize that there are plenty of hardworking folks who would love to be in my position. I don’t take it for granted.

      • D Jenczyk
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Never stop striving for better and don’t ever apologize for it! What kind of life would it be if you just settled for what was there?

        Side note about “phenomenon”: I feel like the creator/author loses his work when it becomes a run-away hit. The fans take it over and can (I feel) change the original purpose of the work. I’m not an author or artist, but I would be too possessive of my work to let something like that happen. Maybe that is why I am not an author/artist… Or maybe it’s the lack of talent?

  2. Posted February 13, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Hiya Lee,

    I’ve noticed this somewhat melancholy tone in your writings of late, and as someone for whom your writing actually means a great deal, it troubles me to know you’re in such straits. I don’t actually have the power to do much besides buy all your books (which I have) and recommend them to others (which I have), but I have brainstormed out a list of ideas that might help you, if you wish to hear it. I can’t say I blame you if you don’t, seeing as your writing career is farther along by leaps and bounds than my own, but I believe the suggestions would work well for you. Email me at the address listed here if you’re interested.

  3. David Lutz
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I think the reason you aren’t more poplar is the same reason I’m such a fan. Your books are always new and different. The humor is the same but the framing new. Like you said, people want what they know. And each of your books is a new genre from the last. But the people that do read you, read you until the end. I know three types of people, people that have never read one of your books, people that have read all of them(me), or people who are working their way through your works(my wife). So maybe you won’t be the next great American author, but you will always be loved by your loyal fans. Or maybe you had a early false peak and the timing has not caught you yet.

  4. Posted February 13, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s funny because the first novel of yours I picked up was “Monster.” I found it at a Half Price Books and only picked it up because I had some extra money to spend on books for cheap. I read the back of it and found myself intrigued by the subject. But I honestly don’t think I would have ever known about had I not luckily stumbled upon Monster at a used book store.
    Now I’ve read all but one of your books and I constantly tell my friend to “pick up an A. Lee Martinez novel” because they’re hilarious, substantial, and good fun. However, I know that you aren’t that well known amongst the people I hang out with. I can talk about J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Edger Rice Burroughs and Terry Prachett with my friends and never worry about someone not being sure who I’m talking about. You however aren’t someone my friends are familiar with even though I’m constantly promoting you when we talk about novels we love.
    I have no doubt that we, your fans, talk you up like crazy even though our praises often fall upon deaf ears, or uncertain readers who aren’t that willing to pick up something new. But one thing that’s cool is we, the small group of thousands who read your books and love them, are apart of community of people who know your books and love them. I think it’s now come to us, your faithful readers to get the word out – tell everyone who you are and why your books matter. The material is out there in print, audiobook, and e-reader formats. It’s available and easily accessible. There really shouldn’t be any reason why you stories aren’t more well known. I agree with your assertion that timing is everything, but that doesn’t have to be the end-all.

  5. Posted February 13, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Is it the business or your writing? Just curious really, because I’m a fan of your work and would hate to see an end to some of the crazy stuff you write. If it IS your writing, I can definitely say I enjoy it (though I’m just gonna say, I would read anything you wrote with Mack in his universe, love that book).

    If it’s the BUSINESS…have you considered self publishing? I am not, by any means, trying to start anything. Self published authors debate a lot on our own channels about the merits, business, etc. I’m NOT trying to do that and I know you’ve written about it before and your hesitancy.

    Just seeing if maybe you’ve considered it as a supplement to your other work.

    Again, not trying to start anything. I’m a big fan of you work and would love to see more.

    P.S. Seriously, the automatic detective is one of those books that I can say is the reason I write, more Mac! (My second favorite is A Nameless Witch, it’s a perfect balance of humor with a well thought out world and story).

  6. Mike
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    I wish I was able to do more than buy and read and recommend you to everyone I know that reads. I look forward to the next whatever it is that you’re writing!

  7. Shawn P. Bellamy
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Is your day job getting in the way of your writing? Hard labor making it difficult to focus the mind? Playing too many video games may have the same effect. I have a tiny little violin and it’s playing just for you….

    Philip K.Dick lived on a shoestring for years. He was in poverty most of his life and he won the Hugo. Most all writers make no money from their love of writing.

    Step Two : Promote!

    I know you can not drive all around the country doing interviews like writers once did, but you can learn to update your own website and put up the 5 missing book covers. How are writers successful without a book deal? They buy reviews and banner ads on websites. They don’t wait to get invited to a con, they buy a table and sell as many books as they can. They offer themselves to local radio around the country for interviews. They move to L.A. and take an active role in getting a book turned into a film. Advertising sells.

    I know it’s Human to want to be more popular than you are, but what kind of Human is that? I know that you didn’t mean to come off as “poor me” and if I was doing better myself maybe I would not read it that way. I bet it’s more about providing for your family than feeding the ego. But I just want to say I don’t mean to be a “jerk” even though I wrote it that way. Just get some perspective. Philip K.Dick’s career took off only after he died.

  8. Shawn P. Bellamy
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    No seriously, big fan here, love your work.

  9. Naomi
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    How about…? 1: Take a break (esp. if you can afford it). 2: Write about things that YOU like and YOU care about. Fuck the potential fans, figuratively. 3: Cultivate connections with the folks who’ve enjoyed your work. Use these connections to foster a different sense of happiness that will distract you until you realize how accidentally successful you will become.

  10. Mark
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    I feel like you do know what people want, but it isn’t the same as what you want. As a big fan of yours, part of me hopes that you will keep writing the same amazingly creative, unique books every time out. However, you always acknowledge that what mass audiences want something familiar, i.e. a series or franchise of some sort. You also write about having mixed feelings about people thinking your books are funny, but that is clearly your most marketable asset. You should be the new/American Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams based on your talent; you actually write better stories than either of those guys. I don’t know you except through your writing, so forgive me trying to give advice, but I think you need to make a decision between being the exact artist you want to be, and being a guy who sells a few more books. There’s no easy answer, and I’ll buy all your books either way. I hope you figure something out that makes you happy, and I just wanted to let you know that you and your books have meant a lot to me.

  11. Goel Boucher
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    So you know I don’t read a ton… But I as someone said in the earlier comments found a copy of Gil’s all fright diner in a used book store read the back and had to check it out… Now I’ve gotten every book that’s come out since then (starting with device misfortune and you are one of my favorite authors along with palahuink and stephen king.

  12. Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    It’s healthy to never be fully satisfied with the status quo, and to be asking yourself, “What could I be doing better?” But in the meantime while you’re trying to figure that out, don’t stop doing what you’ve been doing, which is turning out fresh and original books at a very respectable pace. If seven isn’t enough to hit that big breakthrough you’re looking for, then do ten. If ten isn’t enough, then do fifteen. You’ve already got quality going for you, but quantity has a quality all its own. If you keep doing what you are doing for long enough, you WILL hit a tipping point. In the meantime, keep having fun.

  13. Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    One more thought. I know how you feel about series. But the fact is you have created some alternate realities that are deserving. The Automatic Detective and Emperor Mollusk are two examples of characters that could easily sustain more stories. If readers are comforted by knowing that there’s a series of books with familiar characters awaiting them after the one they’re reading now, why not give them a series as a gateway into the rest of your work? You can even upend the whole concept of series by writing sequels that are as good as the original or better. I’m pretty sure nobody has tried that one yet.

  14. Uncle Byron
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I recently read A Nameless Witch and loved it so I bought two other of your books. It seems to me that comedic fantasy and sci fi don’t seem to sell as well as urban fantasy and epic fantasy so that might be why its harder for you to get as popular as you’d like.
    As you no doubt know series tend to be popular. So you might want to write the further adventures of some of your popular characters (I’d buy it). Or at least write different books in a shared world (I haven’t read all your books yet so don’t know if you already have.)
    Anyway good luck and keep writing.

  15. Craig
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    The first thing I would advise is NEVER WRITE FOR MONEY. It is the quickest route to mediocre writing. It tends to kill the creative process and that’s why sequals and copies are rarely as good as the originals. Please don’t compare yourself to J.K Rawlings or George Lucas. In both cases they were just incredibly lucky and talented. You are simply talented. Its good to have goals to strive for, but keep the finish line in sight.

    So if we take it down a notch or two from multi-billion dollar empires and start looking at some authors who are more successful/popular than yourself, what are they doing, that you aren’t? Why are they more successful?

    I am going to go out on a limb and guess one of the reasons is that they write “series”. Yes, its true, we readers like our series. We know that whatever predicament the hero gets into he or she will emerge victorious in the end but still we buy the books. Why? Because we are comfortable with the characters and they’re like family. It’s the same reason why you order the same dishes at your favorite restaurant. It was delious last time, so why not enjoy it again? Sure its nice to try a new place/dish but you always go back to the favorites. We all do, it’s human nature.

    And here’s another reason, “they” are more successful/popular. They have mastered the art of self-promotion. If there is a dark side to writing, this may be it for most writers. I tend to think of writers as introverts (Yes, I know there are exceptions!) I really don’t know you, but you don’t strike me as the aggressive, slap-em-on-the-back-hearty handshake kinda guy. And if you were, your books would never be published. You need to make a more consistent effort to reach out to fans to keep than up to date on the world of A Lee Martinez. The blog is certainly a step in the right direction, but you need to blog more. Don’t worry so much about offending people. Its the internet, you are going to offend people simply for existing. While I don’t “twitter” myself, if I was in your shoes, I’d be sending off “tweets” at least twice a day. (Ok, maybe not.) I think the best at this sort of thing is Neil Gaiman. The man is a relentless publicity machine and one of the few successful writers who doesn’t have a novel series. Look at his website and compare it to yours. Or any other writer you consider to be more successful.

    While it may not be financially possible to go on book tours you can make a list of independent bookstores in major cities and contact the owners. Make yourself known and how much you appreciate them. Get their support. I’d say do the same with Barnes & Noble but each store will have a different manager and they change frequently.

    And any time you have a chance to participate in a writer’s conference, a fantasy convention or someplace where more than ten people gather to talk about books do it! Sit down and write up a five to ten minute talk about being a writer and why its worth the struggle.

    So in conclusion I would advise you to (1) don’t worry about the money, it will come. (2) write more (3) blog & tweet more frequently (the public has a very short memory) (4) do more public appearances, whenever and wherever you are able.

    Which brings me to one very important question….something your fans want/need to know…Will you be at the San Diego Comic Con in July? If you are really serious about launching your career to the next level, than you will be there.
    I am certain your publisher will have a booth. I am quite sure there will be some panels that you can participate. You can sign autographs. You can meet and hob-knob with fellow writers, while your solid gold robot defends your privacy. And I will even buy you lunch….if I can get a book signed. I got my tickets for the Con and I hope to see you there.

  16. Craig
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    One other thing, I forgot. Keep your Facebook page up to date and acknowledge people’s comments and questions. It just takes a few seconds and it makes us love you all the more.

  17. Olivia Branche
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    *shrugs* Your substantial issues don’t hit wide range of people. Your audience compare you to Adams and Pratchett, because of your humor, but you greatly lack the type of substantial issue-base that would hit a mainstream audience. Adams had religion and bureaucracy. Pratchett had religion and cultural norms. You seem to have ethnicity and hospitality. Is ethnicity and hospitality a problem within the nerd culture? Answer: no. Say want you want–even you don’t agree with my assessment of your issues and audience–your issues and audience are not aligned.

  18. Olivia Branche
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    GREAT THINGS ABOUT A. Lee Martinez’s writing:

    Setting: You, sir, are world builder. You make every setting feel real and alive. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a greasy-spoon in rural ‘merica, a hotel on the beach, a spaceship, a small apartment, a castle, all of it feels amazing through your narrative filter.

    Characters: As with setting, I would put your character development as being close to BEST EVER. I believe you have a real sense of the common man as well as that of deprecated gods and robot detectives and kings and female leads and other-dimensioners and monsters.

    Plot:Your formulaic plots are hit and miss. For the most part you hit the mark. You might consider getting another take on relationship dynamics(who is with who) and how they over come dilemmas. What worked for me in Monster and Divine Misfortune didn’t work for me in Emperor Mollusk or Helen and Troy. Also, work on your deception strategies. I see right through your antagonists evil scheme, always.

    Narration: Perfect

  19. Olivia Branche
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I mean, with the exception of Too Many Curses. Too Many Curses was a pile-of-shit. It gave me a Salad Fingers vibe: http://tinyurl.com/cuz349h

    You about lost me as a reader with Too Many Curses.

  20. Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    As others have pointed out, I’m afraid if you’re looking for bigger sales you’re going to have to start thinking “series.” There are some authors that are able to punch one-offs into the stratosphere (Stephen King comes to mind), but most of the big sellers seem to have at least a trilogy going.

    You have a loyal fan base based on you as an author (I’ve read all your books except your most recent one, which I just heard about), but as yet you haven’t been able to exploit the fan base of your characters.

    I am amazed at the skill required to generate a completely new and believable world with each book, and I wouldn’t stop doing that, but if you picked out a world and set of characters you could run with for a while (you have plenty to choose from) you could do better in the sales department. I’m also astounded there haven’t been at least two or three movies from your books yet. Where’s your agent?

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